India is considering a radical plan to direct commercial banks to buy gold from ordinary citizens and divert it to precious metal refiners in an attempt to curb imports and take some heat off the plunging currency.
A pilot project will be launched soon, a source familiar with the Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) plan told Reuters, although the idea was met with some skepticism.
India has the world's third-largest current account deficit, which is approaching nearly $90 billion, driven in a large part by appetite for gold imports in the world's biggest consumer of the metal. That has played a major role in driving the rupee to a record low.
With 31,000 tons of commercially available gold in the country - worth $1.4 trillion at current prices - diverting even a fraction of that to refiners would sate domestic demand for the metal. India imported 860 tons of gold in 2012.
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The RBI will ask the banks to buy back jeweler, bars and coins for rupees. Lenders will have to offer better rates than pawn shops and jewelers to lure sellers.
"We will start a pilot project among some banks where we will allow them to buy back gold from individual households," the source, an official familiar with the central bank's plan, said. "This will start soon, we have discussed (it) with banks."
The RBI did not immediately have an official comment, a spokeswoman said.
The RBI proposal was a talking point in world gold markets, although prices were reacting more to an easing of concerns that a U.S.-led attack on Syria was imminent. Spot gold prices fell by around 1 percent.
The source said banks in the pilot project would be given a regulatory directive to purchase the gold. It will initially be limited to those with big gold portfolios. Several Indian banks already offer a gold deposit scheme that pays out interest.
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"I don't think it is going to work. It has to be more structured, like a gold bond," said Samiran Chakraborty, chief economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
That's exactly what India's Trade Minister Anand Sharma suggested on Thursday. He said the central bank should look into the possibility of monetizing gold holdings, and issuing bonds for privately-held gold was one way to do it.
India's central bank holds 557.7 tons of gold in its own reserves.
However, any talk of using the central bank's gold to help meet India's international obligations revives memories of a 1991 balance of payments crisis - when India flew 67 tons of gold to Europe as collateral for a loan to avoid a sovereign debt default.
"I have not said there should be any mortgaging of the gold, or auction of the gold, that is incorrect. I have just said the RBI should look into ... how they can benefit the people, particularly with regard to the bonds or the monetization," Sharma said in response to a question in parliament.
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Earlier this week in comments reported in the national media, Sharma said that in a country with 31,000 tons of declared gold "even if 500 tons is monetized at today's value it takes care of your CAD", or current account deficit.
Selling the country's gold reserves may sit badly with Indians, many of whom saw the 1991 sale as a public humiliation. The secret operation was only exposed after a vehicle carrying the first consignment of bullion broke down on its way to the airport from the central bank.